(Left to right) Jeffrey Grabelle, AIDS Action Baltimore office manager; Catherine Moran, granddaughter of honoree Pat Moran; honorees Pat Moran, John Waters, Debbie Rock and Richard Chaisson; and AIDS Action Baltimore executive director and co-founder Lynda Dee. Photo courtesy of Richard Chaisson.

Pat Moran has won three Emmys and many other awards in her years as a casting director for movies and television productions, but she said the tribute she received this week was different.

Moran was honored for her support of AIDS Action Baltimore, the organization she co-founded in 1987 after seeing so many friends dying of AIDS.

The organization started at a time when there were no proven medical treatments for AIDS and the federal government under then-President Ronald Reagan wasn’t doing much to help.

“This is certainly the first award that I’ve ever received,” Moran said, “based on my rage.”

Moran is one of six people who were honored on Sunday for their support of AIDS Action Baltimore, as it marks its 35th anniversary. More than 150 people gathered at The Belvedere to mark the occasion and pay tribute to the honorees and executive director Lynda Dee.

AIDS Action Baltimore co-founder Pat Moran speaks at a ceremony Sunday commemorating the organization’s 35th anniversary. Photo by Ed Gunts.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the human immune system by killing CD4 T-cells in the body. If the number of T-cells drops to a certain level, HIV infection can advance to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), where the immune system becomes very weak and people can become very sick.

AIDS Action Baltimore was founded to fight HIV/AIDS and provide a safety net for people living with HIV/AIDS and experiencing a financial emergency. Since 1987, it has supported more than 8,750 people, distributing $3.145 million in assistance for items such as rent and utilities. It also has a number of programs to fight HIV, from town hall meetings to testing assistance to prevention campaigns, including outreach efforts to at-risk populations.

The three co-founders are Moran, Dee, and Garey Lambert, who passed away in 1987. At 35, AIDS Action Baltimore has outlasted many other organizations that worked to assist people with AIDS, such as Brother Help Thyself in Washington, D.C., or that have been folded into larger networks. This is the first time AIDS Action Baltimore has had a commemoration event since its 25th anniversary in 2012.

Other honorees included two leaders from local medical institutions; two community activists and health care advocates; and a prominent Baltimore-based author and filmmaker. They are:

Richard Chaisson, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and principal investigator of the Hopkins Center for AIDS Research;

Carla Alexander, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Institute of Human Virology, a Fellow of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Care, and an internationally-recognized expert for those living with HIV;

Debbie Rock, a disco singer-turned-HIV activist who is the founding CEO of LIGHT Health & Wellness, a non-profit that provides a range of services for children, families and individuals in Baltimore affected by poverty, addiction, mental illness, HIV/AIDs and other chronic illnesses, including day and respite care for children with HIV/AIDS;

Carlton Smith, a community health worker with the State of Maryland, founder of the Center for Black Equity, and chair of the Ryan White Planning Council, which provides medical care and support services for people with HIV in Baltimore; and

John Waters, filmmaker, visual artist, raconteur, and author of 10 books and director of 16 films, soon to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has two museum exhibits coming up: “Coming Attractions: The John Waters Collection,” at the Baltimore Museum of Art from Nov. 20, 2022 to April 16, 2023, and “Pope of Trash,” a career retrospective at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles next summer.

Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, joined by AIDS Action Baltimore co-founder Lynda Dee, speaks at a ceremony Sunday commemorating the organization’s 35th anniversary. Waters was one of a handful of HIV/AIDS activists honored during the ceremony. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Waters, who is best friends with Moran and worked with her on all of his movies, has been one of the organization’s most generous financial supporters from the start, Dee told the audience. “Without…Pat and John there would be no AIDS Action Baltimore,” she said.

“John used to do all his movie premieres in Baltimore, and AIDS Action Baltimore was the beneficiary of all those movie premieres,” Dee explained. “This was at a time when we were really raising hell and nobody was listening.”

When Waters had a movie premiere in town, “everybody wanted to be a part of it,” Dee said. “Everything sold out. It was the easiest thing we could ever do” to raise funds.

‘AIDS ain’t over’

Waters said he’s happy to support AIDS Action Baltimore.

“I have done very little compared to all of you here,” he told the audience. “AIDS Action Baltimore, now here is an activist group. Really amazing. When the terrible AIDS plague began in the ’80s and this organization formed, I gave them money right away and I still do, because I was afraid if I didn’t support them I’d get AIDS. And guess what? It worked. I didn’t get it and there’s no other reason why I didn’t except this. So keep giving money to AIDS Action Baltimore.”

Waters praised Dee, calling her an “international AIDS warrior,” and the other “rebels” and “foot soldiers” who were with the organization from the start, including Moran and Lambert. “They saved lives and they continue to do so.”

He also issued a warning.

“AIDS ain’t over,” he said. “Now we’ve got monkey balls or whatever it’s called…Who knows what’s going to come next?…I don’t know. But whatever hell is coming next, AIDS Action Baltimore will be there to fight for us.”

‘No one cared’

Moran thanked Waters and Dee for their kind words and explained how she got involved in AIDS Action Baltimore.

“It was the early ’80s and life could not have been better,” she said. “Many years before, I had been liberated from my confined life in Catonsville by my friend Barry Narlines. He introduced me to a world unlike anything I had known before. Full of art, music, theater, and fashion, inhabited by an extraordinary group of gay men. They had saved my life, and it was time to help save theirs.”

Moran said her first AIDS-related funeral was in 1982 for a friend in New York. It was followed by others in San Francisco, Provincetown, and Baltimore.

“The epidemic was killing gay men, and no one cared,” she said. “From Ronald Reagan to the lofty New York Times, it became apparent that no one in power was going to acknowledge what was really happening. They wouldn’t even utter the word AIDS, much less report accurate statistics or advocate for those who were stricken.”

A bright spot

But there was one bright spot, she said.

“There was a group of doctors who we were lucky enough to encounter, who are true heroes. Frank Polk, Tony Fauci, Joel Gallant, and my beloved friend, Dr. John Bartlett. They listened, they took action, and they gave us hope.”

Knowing there were doctors who were taking action, “Lynda, Lambert, and I decided that we too had to help in our own meaningful ways,” Moran said. “So, we started AIDS Action Baltimore in a rundown little office on Charles Street. Our mission was to help people with AIDS pay their bills and not worry about their next meals. At the time, they were ostracized by their own families, and marginalized beyond belief. It wasn’t easy to raise money, and I can’t tell you how many times we thought we wouldn’t make it. Whenever we found ourselves out of money, there were unspoken heroes like Chuck Bowers from the Hippo, and Walter and Jack from The Gallery, who were always there to keep us going. We will forever be grateful to them for believing in AIDS Action Baltimore.”

Richard Chaisson, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and principal investigator of the Hopkins Center for AIDS Research, is one of the honorees at AIDS Action Baltimore’s 35th anniversary ceremony Sunday. Photo by Ed Gunts.

‘The end of AIDS begins here”

Chaisson said he wanted to accept his honor “on behalf of all my colleagues at Hopkins – all those peers and hundreds of others who aren’t here, who really work so hard every day to make AIDS history. Our motto is ‘The end of AIDS begins here,’ and that’s what we’re all aiming for.”

Chaisson acknowledged what AIDS Action Baltimore and Dee have meant to him.

“AIDS activism changed the world, and it changed medicine and public health in ways that make it unrecognizable to what came before,” he said. “The engagement of the community…is transformational.”

He said he’s especially grateful for the way Dee reaches out to him and asks how she can help him.

“She’ll call me or email me and say, ‘I’m talking to Tony (Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to President Joe Biden) tomorrow morning, what do you need? I’ll tell him to get it for you.’ Or ‘I have a meeting with Francis Collins (former Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute) in the morning. What can the [National Institutes of Health] do better for you guys?’ She’s just been astonishing as a stalwart ally.”

‘That is my destiny’

Rock was credited for leading a multi-faceted organization that addresses a variety of needs, including care for children with AIDS. She said she started out wanting to be a disco singer.

“I started off in East Baltimore as a young girl raised in the church, still go to the same church,” she said. “I starting singing R&B and jazz and Big Band. I wanted to be like Donna Summer or Phyllis Hyman. That didn’t happen. So I got an opportunity in the disco world and that’s the best thing that ever happened to me, outside of my husband.”

As a disco performer, Rock said, she appeared in night clubs from New York to San Francisco, and that’s how she first learned about men getting HIV and AIDS.

“We didn’t even say HIV back then,” she said. “It was called the AIDS epidemic. And I met so many — and I’m going to say it — white gay men who taught me what it’s all about, OK, and what they were going through.”

Disco singer-turned-HIV activist Debbie Rock is one of the honorees at a ceremony Sunday commemorating the 35th anniversary of AIDS Action Baltimore. Rock is the founding CEO of the nonprofit LIGHT Health & Wellness, which serves Baltimore residents affected by poverty, addiction, mental illness, HIV/AIDs and other chronic illnesses. Photo by Ed Gunts.

At the same time she was performing in disco clubs, Rock said, “I always had a passion for children and I wanted to be a teacher.” She found her life’s calling, she said, when she learned about Ryan White, a teenager from Kokomo, Indiana, who became a poster child for HIV/AIDS after his school barred him from attending classes following a diagnosis of AIDS, which he contracted from a blood transfusion.

“I was flying back home on a plane and I saw a little boy named Ryan White [in] People Magazine and I will never ever forget it,” she said. “Because when I read about his story, I said, ‘Oh my god. That is my destiny.’”

Two of the honorees weren’t present at the event. Dee said Smith was in the hospital and Alexander was in England.

Dee praised Smith for his work as an activist and organizer at the grassroots level. “He has been an advocate for so long,” on behalf of many different organizations, she said. “There is nobody that I can think of in this town that has continuously been so present and so active.”

Dee said Alexander was the first medical director of the Chase Brexton health care organization, which served a predominantly gay clientele in Baltimore just when people started getting AIDS.

Dee added that Alexander is an expert in palliative care – an approach aimed at optimizing the quality of life and mitigating suffering for those with serious, complex and often terminal illnesses.

“It takes a special person to do that kind of work,” Dee said. “I know I couldn’t do it. She’s very special. She’s one of the most loving and caring people I know.”

AIDS Action Baltimore co-founder Lynda Dee speaks at a ceremony Sunday commemorating the organization’s 35th anniversary. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Paving the way

Alexander sent a message about what keeps her motivated and how AIDS research is linked to more recent research that led to vaccinations and treatments for COVID-19. She said she gets strength from her patients.

“For me there was the never-ending vision of the train going over a cliff,” she said. “The faces and personalities of all those for whom we cared are solidly etched in my memory and have always given me the strength to continue providing care in Baltimore.

“Even following those early days, I was fortunate to work in 10 countries recognized by PEPFAR [the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] to introduce structure such as keeping of medical records, laboratory support and encouraging workers in those countries to care for themselves as a method for extending their own ability to provide treatment over many years.

The early work involving HIV and AIDS has paved the way for treatment of other deadly viruses, she added.

“If it were not for all that was learned about HIV at that time and after, scientists worldwide would not have been able to respond to the threat of COVID-19 with vaccine treatment,” she said.

Search for a cure

Dee said her ultimate goal is to end AIDS once and for all.

“We’re…working to find a cure right now,” she told the audience. “It’s a long slog. What a virus. Whoever thought we’d be here all this time? But anyway, we’re working on it. I’d love to see it cured in my lifetime.”

The 35th anniversary commemoration was a fundraiser for AIDS Action Baltimore. Contributions can be sent to AIDS Action Baltimore, 14 East Eager Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.